Volume 46, Issue 2 - March 2007

Warehouse Call
Controlling Inventory and more
by Dave Piasecki 

Warehouse Optimization
Being More Organized Can Help Warehouse Efficiency

When people think of optimizing warehouse operations, their focus is usually on big issues, like warehouse management systems (WMS), automated material handling systems, barcoding and automated data collection. They often neglect the little things, like training, rules, tools and equipment that can affect warehouse operations. 

These little things usually require little to no investment and can sometimes have an enormous impact on operations. 

Training 

While I generally wouldn’t describe employee training as a little thing, training employees is inexpensive and likely will provide the greatest return on investment of anything you will do in your operation. Operations that lack adequate procedures and employee training are likely to suffer from poor quality, low productivity, safety issues, low employee morale, highly stressed supervisors and managers and a general lack of control. These chaotic conditions, often the result of poor training, tend to contribute to the ongoing cycle of inadequate training, by making it difficult for supervisors and managers to find time for defining procedures and training employees. The only way to break the cycle is by taking the time to define and document procedures and implement an employee-training program. 

Rules

Unfortunately, many supervisors and managers shy away from telling workers how they should be doing their jobs. Even if they do communicate clear policies and procedures, few actually enforce these rules.

While people often don’t like being told what to do, you’ll find your workers will get even more aggravated working in an environment that has a lack of control. This is especially true of your better workers whose jobs will be made more difficult by other workers not following procedures. 

Tools

Making sure employees have proper tools to perform their job functions readily available can also have a significant impact on operations. When employees waste time wandering around the warehouse, searching for a pallet jack or a tape dispenser, it shaves off more from the bottom line than the cost of purchasing more of these low-cost items. Items like pocket calculators, tape machines, markers and razor knives will disappear. Whether they are lost, broken or go home in someone’s pocket doesn’t change the fact that you now have an employee without the proper tools to perform his job. 

You’re much better off treating these as consumables and always having extras on hand, rather than facing the consequences. Without proper tools, you run the risk that employees might damage a product because they couldn’t find a tape dispenser or injury because no one could find a pair of safety glasses. 

Also, make sure you are purchasing quality tools and supplies. Stretchwrap that doesn’t cling or breaks in the middle of wrapping, tape dispensers that don’t work properly, tape that doesn’t stick or doesn’t come off the roll correctly and pallet jacks that require excessive pumping will not do much for productivity or morale.

It’s also important to have specific areas where these tools should be stored within each department. Tools required for daily operations should be made quickly accessible to workers. 

Equipment

It’s not hard to find low-cost equipment that helps increase productivity and safety in warehouse environments. Lift tables, portable flex conveyors, drum handling equipment and pallet dollies are some examples. 

Pay close attention to workstation design in operations where workers spend a significant amount of time packing/packaging orders at a station in fulfillment operations. Make sure everything the worker needs is easily accessible and that equipment and materials used infrequently are not cluttering the work area. Verify that workstation sizes, height and orientations are optimal for the specific task being performed and look into modifying workstations to meet your specific needs. There is a lot you can do with bolt-on attachments. You can also find someone with some welding experience to customize your space. 

Make sure flatbed carts, stock carts and other rolling equipment have good quality wheel/caster assemblies. The difference in level of effort required to push a cart with larger, higher-quality casters is much less than the ones with the small, inexpensive casters that come on most equipment. If your employees regularly use equipment with stock casters, it’s definitely worth the effort and cost to replace them.

Maintenance

Proper maintenance of warehouse equipment increases both productivity and safety. Preventative maintenance plans should be in place for lift trucks, conveyor systems, automated material handling equipment, dock equipment, stretchwrapping machines, palletizers, bailers and compactors. Encourage employees to report any problems with equipment immediately. You should also have contingency plans for all key pieces of equipment in the event of a breakdown.

Maintenance of pallet racking is often overlooked. Any warehouse that has racking will have some degree of racking damage. It is important to replace or repair damaged racking as quickly as possible, not only as a safety issue, but also as a statement of attitude. Leaving damaged sections of racking in place tends to promote further damage. If there is a higher likelihood of damage, rack guards and barricades can be put in place. 

Housekeeping

Maintaining good housekeeping practices will result in improvements in safety, productivity and morale. You can’t expect spotless floors in a working warehouse, but implementing specific cleaning schedules ensures a clean, safe working environment. Floors in high-traffic areas should be swept at least once each day or shift. Areas that don’t receive much activity may be swept once each week. Debris such as strapping, stretchwrap and broken pieces of pallets should be picked up immediately because they pose safety hazards. 

The areas around machines and other slippery surfaces should be mopped regularly or scrubbed on a regular schedule. Piece-pick and case-pick warehouses need to make sure the products on shelves are stacked neatly with empty cartons, packaging and stretchwrap removed. Specific areas should be designated for the storage of pallets, totes and crates. Ample receptacles should be available to ensure employees can easily dispose of trash.

I find that you get much better results by assigning specific areas and tasks to specific individuals. This creates ownership and ensures everyone does his part. 

Identification

Clear identification of product and locations will make order picking and put away faster and more accurate; properly marked storage areas and staging lanes will eliminate congestion. Here are some suggestions to help you accomplish those goals:
• Use clearly readable labels or license plates on pallets and cartons;
• Use location labels on storage shelving and pallet rack positions;
• Use signs to identify aisles; and
• Tape or paint floors to designate floor storage areas and staging lanes in dock areas.

You probably already knew about many of the items on this list. Individually, some of these items may seem to have very little impact. Combined, they can have a tremendous impact on your employees and operation. Make a list of your “little things” and check it regularly to make sure you don’t lose sight of these issues. 

the author: Dave Piasecki is Owner/operator of Inventory Operations Consulting LLC. More of his articles can be found at http://www.inventoryops.com.


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